"If you're a person on this earth," actress Robin Givens says, "there's no way you're not going to go through a difficult time." She would know: In 1988, at 23, the star of the '80s sitcom Head of the Class married boxer Mike Tyson. Less than a year later she filed for divorce amid allegations that he had physically abused her—and she was quickly branded a "gold digger" and the "Most Hated Woman in America" in the press. But as Givens reveals in her emotional new memoir, Grace Will Lead Me Home, by leaning on her faith (and ex-boyfriend Brad Pitt), she was able to "start dreaming forward instead of backward." Now starring on MyNetworkTV's Saints & Sinners, Givens, 42, lives with sons Buddy, 13, whom she adopted in 1993, and Billy, 7, her child with ex-boyfriend Murphy Jensen, in Florida and New York City, where she chatted with PEOPLE.

It's been almost 20 years since your divorce. Why write a book now?
It wasn't until I was beyond it that I started feeling all of the pain. Some people go to therapy; for me, writing was therapeutic. I just had to get whatever was in me out.

What don't people know about you and Mike?
He was just ... my friend. I could go to bed with Clearasil all over my face and he thought that was cute because it was me. I think having that first man that tells you you're worthy of being loved is a critical thing.

Yet in the book you detail physical abuse and say that he sexually assaulted you during a trip to Russia in '88.
I don't want to minimize what happened, but I never said, "Oh, Michael raped me." I never used that word. Clearly it was an abusive relationship; that was just another experience of being powerless. [A spokesman for Tyson had no comment.]

Why did you stay as long as you did?
I wanted to be the person that navigated him to happily ever after. I grew up on musicals, so I'm waiting for somebody to break into song and everything will be good in the end. I just got in over my head.

You mention that your mother and grandmother also suffered from physical abuse.
Nobody talked about certain things that had happened. So my take is that you have to talk about things, to look your demons in the eye and say, "You don't have a hold on me. Let's move on."

Brad Pitt was apparently a big part of your healing process.
We dated for about six months [after the split with Tyson]. It was nice. He was really just so gentle and so understanding—he would say, "Baby, it's okay." He was with me through it all, but I haven't seen him or talked to him since.

What else got you through?
I grew up Catholic, but in that time of being alone, that sense of not wanting to go on, is really where I found comfort in a higher power. Believing and having faith is the way I survive.

Are you and Mike still in touch?
I saw him over a year ago at a premiere. We hugged, and he said, "I'm sorry." And I said, "I love you," and he said, "I love you." We loved each other [once]—I can't negate that. He has a place in my heart, but he's really not a part of my life.

How do you feel looking back on it all?
I was a baby then. And there was so much criticism of me. I was in a gift shop and people were talking about Britney Spears shaving her head, and I said, "You don't know her!" It's so hard to be in front of the world and grow up.

What makes you happy now?
I can't tell you how much I enjoy my children. Our house is a mess, I'm yelling constantly—but it feels good. Don't get me wrong, I want a 6'2" man too! I'm dating now, but I would love to find something serious. We'll see what happens.